Taking matters into their own hands
It promised to be one of the most riveting nights of the year for members of the Jackson County Genealogical Society.
Half a dozen men filed through the door of the Sylva library hauling boxes and pulling hand trucks bulging with old tools and implements, some of them scrounged from their papaw’s blacksmith shop or granny’s cellar, and others collected over the years from auctions or relatives or flea markets, because there’s really no such thing as too many tools.
“People could stay for hours and talk about these items and their uses and the stories that go with them,” said Tim Osment, president of the genealogical society. “The tool itself represents a time when folks used their hands to build their own items. There is a sense of nostalgia that goes with that.”
Once the evening got rolling, each person took a turn plying through their pile, holding up the sundry doohickeys and thingamabobs for a rousing game of “What was this?”
The audience wasn’t shy, hollering out guesses and serving up their own commentary. Clues were dribbled out until at last the audience got it, as a soft chorus of “Fancy that” and “I declare” echoed through the room.
But they were sometimes stumped, and that was the fun of it, of course.
“Bill, I bet you’ve never seen one of these,” said Marion Jones, issuing a friendly challenge to one of the tool experts in the audience.
Jones held up a small metal hoop with a sickle-shaped blade fastened to it.
“What is that?” the man named Bill finally answered back.
“It’s a corn stalk cutter,” Jones said. “Put it up your calf and go along cutting corn stalks with your leg.”
Jones confounded the audience again when he held up a something akin to a shoe last, but with an odd pump knot on the side. Leather shoes were hell on corns, but this contraption would have helped.
“You put it down in your shoe and when it dried you had a matching bump on the inside of your shoe,” Jones said.
The stories behind some of the tools were as rich as the tools themselves, like the time James Monteith’s dad was showing off his homemade blowtorch and singed his beard.
“Sorry daddy, I’ve told it again,” Monteith said, looking skyward.
For many, the night was a trip down memory lane, recalling a vision of their grandmother standing in the yard stripping dried kernels from corn cobs with a hand-turned sheller, or their grandfather bent over a cutting block making shingles with a froe in the woodshed.
Some tools were a thing of the past, admired as an antique but never to be used again. Many, however, had plenty of life in them.
“A lot of these tools I still use,” said Monteith, holding up an old monkey wrench. “I oiled that up and lookey yonder, it works like a new one.”
The old tools of Appalachia are a testament to mountain ingenuity. They were often created by the same hands that used them, fashioned on a work bench in the barn during a rainy spell that made the fields too wet to work in, or dreamed up around the woodstove one winter night.
Take a gadget brought in by Bill Crawford that’s a godsend when facing a huge stack of corn to shuck. Crawford held up his hand and slipped a metal band over it, then turned his palm toward the audience to reveal a hooked spike.
“When you’re shucking a lot of corn, after a while your hand gets sore. You jab this spike in the husk and just pull it down,” Crawford said.
The gadgets and implements of days gone by tell a lot about life on Appalachian farmsteads like a hand-turned wringer that pressed the clothes between wooden rollers to squeeze out the water before hanging them on the line.
Simply serving noon dinner took an army of tools. An apple corer, a meat slicer, a butter churn and butter molds, and a slew of cabbage cutters.
Cabbage cutters made such a strong showing at the program, in fact, cabbage must have been a staple of the Appalachian farm diet. There were all style and manner of the large two-handled cutters with curved blades, designed for repetitive rocking chops to dice cabbage for crout, chow-chow and slaw.
The number of hat-stretchers made it clear that hats were a mainstay of the Appalachian farm wardrobe.
And the role of farming in daily life was witnessed by planting tools like the dibble — “It’s a real handy little tool,” Jones said — or tiny, pointed hats the size of a banana with weights on the end, worn like caps on cow’s horns to bend them down as they grew.
Jones pulled a fast one on the audience when he held up a large paddle, well-used judging by the knicks and gouges, a little too well used perhaps, unless you were running illegal dog fights.
“You put it in the dogs mouth and twist it to make them let go,” Jones explained, running his hand over the teeth marks.
The original use for a few tools remained a mystery. Owners of odd tools could bring them in and draw on the old-timey wisdom of the group to help sort out what it might have been. But no amount of pondering solved a homemade three-way vice clamp brought in by one woman.
“I have not yet found anybody who knows what this tool or vice was. I have not found out why somebody would have possessed this,” she said, laying down a gauntlet that couldn’t be crossed that night either.
Rick Frizzell shared a prized tool he still uses today — a nail puller with a doglegged end for getting at a nail that’s hidden behind another nail, a conundrum crossed by any man who’s laid a wood-shingled roof. He admits it’s not an everyday kind of tool, but when you do need it, nothing else will do the trick.
“Every time I went to a hardware store and told them what I wanted they handed me a crow bar. So I had to find one at a flea market,” Frizzell said.
Not all the gadgets were driven by necessity. Tinkering was a hobby unto itself in the old days. An occasion to use some of the narrowly tailored, highly specific tools may have came along once in a blue moon, but whether the tool was ever pressed into service was beside the point.
Some of the tools on parade were simply born from the human drive to create, a self-imposed challenge to engineer something for invention’s sake as much a true need.
“I’d say it was both. I’d bet on that,” Monteith said.
Drilling into the past
Jason Gregory showed off a rare pump auger used to bore a hole through the middle of logs to make wooden pipes. The logs were fitted end to end and buried underground to carry water before modern iron pipes.
The specialized pump auger was a rare tool. Few settlers were lucky enough to have log pipe technology bringing water from a springhead to their homes, without having to fetch buckets from a well or creek.
Gregory had a mind to make his own wooden water pipe with the same tool that once turned around and around in the hands of his great, great, great-grandfather Washington Robinson, a blacksmith in Dillsboro.
“It was thrilling to me to get to use the tools my ancestors had used 100 years ago,” Gregory said.
But drilling the long, straight holes through the logs, without straying off course and punching through the sidewall of the log, was another story.
“This is kind of a lost art. I tried about five logs and it was disastrous. This I the first one I got right,” Gregory said.
The bored logs were joined end-to-end with a tapered fitting. The wooden water pipes can last a surprisingly long time.
“They’re what’s called ‘water sealed,’” Gregory said.
“Some have been excavated that lasted 100 years.”
“Everybody collects something,” offered Bill Crawford, standing beside a table of more than two-dozen lethal-looking axes.
Every axe had its own use, Crawford explained, plucking one of his smaller axes from the pile. Clocking in at just two-and-a-half pounds, it was light enough to wield with one arm, perfect for tapering the end of a fence post before driving it in the ground, Crawford said.
This one, Crawford said, grabbing up a huge, long-handled broadside axe, was designed for hewing the sides of a log for a puncheon floor. The blade was mounted to its handle at an angle, so you could standing on top of the log and make long, clean cleaves down its sides without having to lean out as much, Crawford explained.
One axe was particularly impressive, at least to those who know their way around an axe.
“You all know about Case pocket knifes. Here is a Case hatchet,” Crawford said, eliciting knowing nods and even a few “Ooohhhs” from men in the audience.
But the backbone of Crawford’s impressive axe collection comes from his early days as a logger, when he worked alongside his father cutting timber from the high-up mountainsides, one of the few ways to make cash money in the old days.
There was a cruising axe, used by timber cruisers to mark trees for cutting when surveying a stand. He had a felling axe and a springboard axe, a specialized axe for chopping down a tree while balancing on a narrow shelf mounted partway up the trunk.
Crawford had countless early logging implements with names like trace chains, a grab skip or the ingenious J-hook, which was hitched to horses when hauling logs down from the mountains.
“When the log gets to running away down the hill you holler ‘Jay’ and the horse swings around,” Crawford said. When the J-shaped hook pivots it turns the log loose from the horse’s harness, letting it careen down the mountain on it own.
He held up what appeared to be a standard wood splitter, an iron wedge you drive into a log to open it up along the grain. But when he turned it on its side, a hole ran plumb through it.
“That’s a stump buster,” Crawford said, also known as a powder wedge. “You drive it into the stump and put a little bit of dynamite powder down in there and it blows it apart.”
Buried in the axe stack was long-handled hook with a spike on the end — called a “wood pick” — that saved hands, fingers and backs when loading and unloading logs. Working in pairs, one man would lift the end of a log and set it on the edge of the truck bed, while the other stood in the bed of a truck with the pick.
“You stick this point in the log,” Crawford said, slinging the wood pick out like a fishing rod, “and jerk it up in there.”
Want to go?
Dillsboro’s Monteith Cove is the subject of Jackson County Genealogical Society’s August program, which will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 14, at the Historic Jackson County Courthouse in Sylva.
It will be hosted by the Dillsboro-based Appalachian Women’s Museum and the speakers will be Delos Monteith and Emma Wertenberger. They will speak about Dillsboro and Monteith family history. Local residents with knowledge of and interest in the topics are encouraged to attend and share their stories.
The Jackson County Genealogical Society promotes, preserves and shares the history and lineage of Jackson County.
www.jcncgs.com or 828.631.2646.